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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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BOOK: Petrella at 'Q'
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“You mean,” said Petrella slowly, “that if Captain Crabtree’s tomb was used, in the manner we have discussed, it will not be so used again.”

“I mean that the matter would be out of my hands. I learned this afternoon that I have been appointed to the office of Archdeacon of Southwark. My work from now on will be very largely administrative. My successor here has already been nominated. He is, I believe, a thoroughly worthy young man and an enthusiast for the Boy Scout movement.”

“I see,” said Petrella.

“And in any event,” said the Reverend Sabine, with something approaching an unclerical grin, “can you imagine that the word of Soapy Lidgett – and I can assure you that he would be your only witness – would have stood up against that of an Archdeacon elect of Southwark?”

Petrella thought about Soapy as he had last seen him. Even if he hadn’t vanished altogether, he would certainly refuse to open his mouth. It was an impossible situation. He would have to keep a close eye on the Reverend Sabine’s successor though.

He said, “I take your point, Rector.”

The Rector said, “I shall have to be getting along. Perhaps you would care to stay on for a little and listen.”

“Listen?”To our choir practice.” He led the way out into the church. The choir stalls were full of men and boys.

“I am sorry to have kept you waiting, gentlemen. Shall we start with the first of our evening hymns.” He nodded to the organist, who played a soft chord.

“The day thou gavest, Lord, has ended,” said the Reverend Sabine.

The Last Tenant

 

Fred Jury and Johnny Tredgett would have described themselves, if they had thought of the word, as seasonal workers. They were prepared to tackle any job which called for muscle rather than brain power. Sorting and humping packages at the Crossways Goods Depot was their favourite occupation for the cold wet months of winter and early spring. With the turn of the year they liked to be out and about. They were not skilled enough to tackle the more sophisticated building trades but there was always rough work to be done; demolition, rubble shifting, drain laying and foundation digging. The local foremen knew them for good workers, with the bonus of a head for heights. They were seldom out of a job for long.

On this lovely April morning they were perched on a remnant of brick wall, sixty feet above the pavement, demolishing what had once been a snug little turret room at the top of a block of offices at the corner of Endless Street and Barton Street.

All that was left of the inner wall of the room was a fireplace with an imitation marble mantelshelf painted dark green and a mirror set in the wall above it. The three outer walls had already been demolished.

“Be a bit careful with that,” said Fred. “Personally, I could use it myself. Go nicely in the front room.”

Johnny slid the point of his pick into the plaster beside the mirror. A lump came away but there was solid brickwork behind the plaster.

“Odd old way to fix a mirror,” he said. He probed again. More plaster fell. The glass remained immovable.

He said, “If we can’t shift her we’d better bust her, right? Don’t want to be all day about it.”

“Of course,” said Fred. “Naturally, if you’re looking for seven years bad luck, go ahead and bust it. Don’t mind me. Just go right ahead. Bust it.”

“That’s a lot of bullshit,” said Johnny, but he lowered his pick.

“My Uncle Arthur smashed a big looking-glass. Just after the war. Nothing went right for him after that. First his brother died. Then he got into trouble with the National Insurance for trying to steam the stamps off his brother’s card and stick them on to his own. Then he got piles.”

Fred, who had started scratching away at the other side of the mirror, said, “Take a look at that, will you.”

The glass, it was now clear, was set in an iron frame. It was clear too, why they had been unable to shift it. The frame was hinged to a metal upright which was itself set in the brickwork. He said, “It’s a sort of cupboard door really. The catch must be on your side.”

Some more careful work with the point of the pick and the secret of the mirror was revealed. A small square of wood, painted the same colour as the plaster, came away. Under it was a keyhole in the iron frame.

“All we’ve got to do,” said Johnny, “is get those bricks loose. We won’t have no more trouble then.” It took ten minutes to loosen the bricks all round the frame. Then they started to lever it out. As they did so, the foreman who had climbed up behind them, said, “What are you two layabouts playing at. You ought to have had the whole wall down by now. God Almighty!”

He was staring at something Fred had picked out of the brick-lined cavity behind the looking-glass door.

 

Detective Chief Inspector Patrick Petrella was walking to work. It was exactly a mile from his new flat to Patton Street Police Station and in fine weather, the walk made a good start to a day most of which had to be spent inside his office. He was humming to himself as he walked. It wasn’t just the weather. The wheels of existence seemed, for once, to be turning smoothly. There were encouraging reports on the progress of young-Petrella-to-be. A girl, this time, he felt sure. The rougher elements in his manor seemed to have declared an armistice for the moment. There was enough petty crime to keep them all from getting bored, but nothing which called for lengthy reports to Division or District. He had no reason to suppose that this happy state of affairs would last, but his years in the police service had taught him to live in the present.

In the charge room three men were awaiting his arrival, under the eye of Station Sergeant Cove. Two were tough cheerful youngsters in their working clothes. The third was an older man, a foreman he guessed. Stacked on the counter was a pile of cardboard boxes.

“Thought you might like to look at this little collection,” said Sergeant Cove. “These boys just brought it along.”

The largest of the boxes, an open shoe box, was crammed with banknotes, ones and fives in bundles.

“Haven’t counted them yet,” said Sergeant Cove. “But there must be more’n a thousand nicker there, wouldn’t you say.”

“A lot more than that, I should guess,” said Petrella. He eased one of the bundles of fivers out of the box. They were packed so tightly that it was a job to get them out. There were forty notes in that bundle. Fred and Johnny watched him hungrily.

“Two hundred here. Must be three or four thousand altogether. What’s in the other boxes?”

“Valuables,” said Fred.

“Joolery,” said Johnny.

It was good run-of-the-mill stuff. Gold chains and knick-knacks. Rings set with small diamonds and rubies. Wrist watches. Gold pens and pencils. Lighters, cigar cutters.

Everything looked new and unused. There was a necklace made out of linked gold coins that Petrella seemed to remember.

He said to the foreman, “We’ll have to check these things in our lists. I’ve got a feeling that necklace is part of the stuff that was lifted from Adamsons last month. You did quite right to bring it along. We’ll list it and give you a receipt.”

The foreman said, “If any of it should be unclaimed, it was these boys who found it. They were knocking down the back wall of the very top room—”

“Easier to show me than talk about it,” said Petrella. “Come on.” The truth was he was glad of an excuse to get out into the sunshine again.

Ten minutes later he was wondering if he had been sensible. He had a fair head for heights. The real trouble was that there was nothing to hold onto.

“Easier if you sit down,” said the foreman sympathetically.

“How on earth do you
work
up here?” said Petrella.

“Nothing to it, once you get used to it,” said Johnny, balancing on a narrow ledge of brickwork and holding his pick in one hand.

After a minute Petrella felt better. He hauled himself up on to his feet, edged forward and peered into the cavity over the fireplace.

“How do you suppose it worked?” he said.

“Small square of wood,” said Fred. “Fitted into the plaster, over the lock. Pick it out and undo the lock, always supposing you had the key. Then the mirror swings open.”

It was a neat job and the steelwork looked new. Petrella said, “Who had this office, anyway?”

The foreman scratched his head and consulted his memory. “This’d be the turret room, wouldn’t it? Fifth floor. Leo Hinn. Called himself an export agent.”

“I wonder what he exported,” said Petrella.

Later that morning he asked the same question of Mr. Tasker, the solicitor at the Oval.

Mr. Tasker said he thought it might have been hides or furs or something of that sort. Hinn wasn’t a regular client.

He’d arranged the letting for him about two years ago. After some searching, he found a thin folder of papers. There were two short handwritten notes on flimsy writing paper, with no address at the top and signed with a sort of hieroglyphic seeming to be made up of the letters L and H.

“He always signed his letters like that,” said Mr. Tasker. “I had the devil of a job finding out where he lived. I finally tracked him down to a room he rents from a Mrs. Tappin in Pardoe Street. Number 46.”

“Did he have a lease?”

“Of the office you mean? Certainly not. If you have a lease, you pay stamp duty. He was quite happy with a letter from the landlords telling him he could have the room and what rent he had to pay. I initialled it on his behalf.”

“Who are the landlords?”

“At that time it was Fullbrights. A very decent old outfit. When Charlie Fullbright died last year, they sold out to Lempard. Rather different sort of type.”

“Different?”

“I don’t mean bent. An eye to the main chance. All Lempard ever wanted with this particular building was to knock it down. Can’t blame him really. Shockingly designed. Full of big hallways and corridors and a lot of air space taken up with turrets and battlements. He reckoned they could put up a modern building on the site with twice the lettable area. Offices on top, shops underneath.”

“If he wanted to pull it down, I suppose he had to get rid of the tenants first?”

“That’s right,” said Mr. Tasker. “That’s just what he did. He got rid of the tenants. It’s a technique. You start by buying out the ground-floor tenant. You don’t re-let. You just allow the ground-floor office to deteriorate. Maybe you board up the windows. The other tenants get a bit edgy. Perhaps another one pulls out. That gives you an excuse to lock up the main entrance. If there are only three or four tenants left, well, they can use the side entrance. Then the lift goes wrong. Of course, they’re going to repair it, but it takes time. So the old gent who has the office on the third floor has to climb the stairs three or four times a day. It’s surprising how quickly people take the hint”

“I see,” said Petrella. It sounded dirty, but not quite criminal. “And he got them all out.”

“He thought he had. Somehow he’d overlooked little Mr. Hinn, tucked away in his turret room. He was easy to overlook. Five foot nothing and no weight at all. As I was saying, Sam Lempard forgot about him. He made all his arrangements to pull the place down, signed up the builders, borrowed the money and was ready to press the button when someone said, ‘Hold on a moment. What about old Hinn. Can’t start work whilst he’s there.’ Talk about a row! He sacked his lawyers. Mellors and Rapp were acting for him at the time. Made out it was their fault, which was a load of nonsense. Then he tried to bully little Mr. Hinn. He wouldn’t be bullied. Then he tried to buy him and he wouldn’t be bought. Next he served a notice of dilapidation on him. There are agents who specialise in that sort of thing.”

He mentioned a name and Petrella nodded. He knew them well.

“That was when Mr. Hinn came to me. I told him to ignore the notice. Tear it up. No court would enforce it. Not with the building in that state and going to be pulled down anyway. He didn’t only tear up the notice. Dear me, no. He served a counter-notice on Sam Lempard, under the Landlord and Tenant Act asking for a new tenancy. Ha! I enjoyed doing that for him.”

“You say Lempard sacked Mellors. Who was acting for him?”

Mr. Tasker made a face and said, “Eric Duxford, who else?”

“Who else,” agreed Petrella.

“He was in a corner. What with lay-off payments to the builders and interest on the money they’d borrowed the delay must have been costing him a thousand a week and old man Hinn could have hung him up for three months, no question. Once the court heard the whole story – which I should have been delighted to tell them – he might even have got a new lease.”

“So what did Lempard do?”

“I guess he did the only thing he could. Offered Hinn a really large sum of money. Too big for him to refuse.”

“You
guess
that’s what happened. But you don’t know?”

“I don’t know, because that’s the last I saw of Mr. Hinn. He cleared out altogether. If you do find him, you might remind him that he hasn’t paid my bill yet.”

“When I find Mr. Hinn,” said Petrella, “I shall have quite a lot of questions to ask him.”

 

Samuel Lempard described himself as a property consultant. He had a handsome set of offices in Kentledge Road with a convenient rear exit into Kentledge Mews, where he kept one of his three cars. This enabled him to dodge importunate or indignant clients. He seemed unsurprised to receive a visit from Detective Chief Inspector Petrella. Word of what had happened on his building site that morning must already have reached him. He said, “It’s a queer do. What do you make of it, Inspector?”

“It’s a bit early to be certain,” said Petrella. “We haven’t had time to check out all the stuff yet. One bit, at least, is on the ‘Recently Stolen List’. If it all turns out to be stolen goods, we shall have to assume that Mr. Hinn didn’t confine his activities to dealing in hides and furs.”

“A fence, eh?” said Mr. Lempard. “It doesn’t surprise me a lot. He was a shifty little bastard.”

“And took a bit of shifting,” said Petrella.

Mr. Lempard’s face showed a mottled red and Petrella could see the veins in his neck swelling. He said to himself, “By God, he
has
got a temper. He can’t think of it, even now, without coming to the boil.” The flush subsided slowly. As soon as Mr. Lempard could speak he grunted out, “So you heard about that, eh?”

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